ON THE INTERNET, you can get almost anything. Books, baseball tix, bank loans . . . even broads.
Starting soon, you can even buy wine.
But in Pennsylvania, you can’t buy beer on the Internet.
At least, not legally.
Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that still treats beer as if it were a Class 1 narcotic. Nearly everywhere else in this country, you can pick up your Bud along with your bread at your friendly supermarket. Wanna sixpack in pee-ay? Slink into your local bar, and maybe they’ll have something cold. But only two at a time – that’s the limit. They’ve gotta be wrapped in brown paper, and forget about discounts – you’re going to pay a premium.
It’s no surprise that, with rules left over from 1933, we can’t enjoy a modern convenience.
But a ruling last month by a federal court in New York could force Pennsylvania into the 21st century.
In a case brought by a Virginia winery, U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman ruled a New York law that allows only in-state wineries to ship directly to residents is unconstitutional. The regulation, like many similar state liquor laws, was a product of the 21st Amendment, which (in addition to ending Prohibition) gave states direct control of alcohol sales. But Berman’s ruling says the federal Interstate Commerce Clause, which prohibits discrimination against out-of-state businesses, trumps the 21st Amendment.
Experts believe the ruling will not immediately affect Pennsylvania wine sales because the state doesn’t give in-state wineries a similar advantage. All wine and spirits, regardless of where they’re made, must be sold through the state store system.
The state Liquor Control Board, though, is finally dipping its toe into digital waters. Soon, Pennsylvanians will be able to buy almost any wine made in the world through the LCB’s Web site. You’ll have to go pick up your bottle at your local wine and spirits shop, but if your favorite California boutique winery is willing to ship it, you can get it.
How about beer?
Forget about it. Unless your favorite micro in northern Oregon ships pallets to East Coast beer distributors, you’re prohibited from receiving even a sixpack of the stuff. Technically, you’re not even allowed to hop on a plane and bring back a souvenir bottle in your suitcase.
An LCB spokeswoman noted that Pennsylvania already has plenty of good brews. Well, she has a point – if you ignore the entire microbrew and import explosion of the past 10 years. If nothing else, the astounding variety of products on the shelves – whether it’s beer, coffee or blue soda – should tell the terminally business-unsavvy drones at the LCB that consumers want more, more, MORE!
“Believe me, we’d love to be in Pennsylvania,” said Rob Imeson, president of BeverageBistro
.Com. His company handles sales for the Michael Jackson beer-of-the-month club. Every month, it sends out a half-case of specialties from around the world – brews you can’t find anywhere else in America.
“Pennsylvania is the one state, because of the beer sophistication and the population, that we’d like to be able to do business in,” Imeson said.
He tried to launch sales here a year ago – but was thwarted by authorities.
Blame the state cops.
According to Nick Lucca, president of Lionstone International, a Chicago-based importer/wholesaler that handles deliveries for Imeson and other Internet companies, police regulations prohibit direct delivery to the consumer.
In other states, said Lucca, Lionstone negotiates the complexities of the Prohibition-era “three-tier” system. That system, designed to keep the mob out of the alcohol business, requires that beer move from brewer to wholesaler to retailer before a consumer can fill ‘er up.
But in Pennsylvania, a consumer must physically pick up the booze from a retailer – a provision that theoretically limits underage drinking.
The underage issue, though, is a red herring, said Lucca. If a kid wants beer, he’s hardly going to go to the trouble of mail-ordering a case of Coors Light and waiting two weeks for delivery.
Some experts think the state will soon be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the Internet age.
“Pennsylvania law is vulnerable on beer,” said industry consultant Mark Rodman.
A number of its regs, he noted, favor in-state brewers, especially in the distribution of their beer. If other courts follow Judge Berman’s lead, it could mean the end of state laws that helped protect Pottsville’s Yuengling Brewing, for example, from competition from St. Louis.
Will that lead to Internet beer sales?
Rodman thinks beer-by-mail packagers should start shipping into Pennsylvania today.
“It would be highly problematic for the LCB to stop it,” Rodman said. “They can pretty safety start shipping into Pennsylvania, but they better pay their taxes. ”
A few final notes for those who’ve made it all the way to the bottom of this column:
Don’t tell the LCB, but there are several Internet beer-mailers who will ship into Pennsylvania. I won’t name them here because I don’t want to blow their cover.
Just sign up and they’ll tell you if they ship here. If they do, don’t ask questions.
(I’ve got one guy in California who sends me beer marked “yeast sample. ” Hey, it’s the truth. )
As an alternative, send your Internet sixpack to a friend in Jersey, where it’s legal. Just don’t be surprised if it’s missing a bottle or two.
Here’s six beer clubs on the Internet. Remember, there are only five shopping days left till Christmas.
- www.RealBeer.com, home of the Michael Jackson Real Beer, Great Beers of Belgium and the American Brewers Club.
- www.BeerontheWall.com, with hard-to-find California brews.
- www.beeramerica.com, the Internet’s largest beer-of-the-month club.
- www.beermonthclub.com, with micros from coast to coast.
- www.microclub.com, with selections from winners at the Great American Beer Festival.
- www.worldbeerdirect.com, with micros and premium imports.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Deschutes Jubelale.